The Complex

Hagel's Hotline to the Kremlin

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Russian counterpart back in December, the Pentagon hailed it as the first-ever video teleconference between U.S. and Russian defense chiefs. Hagel and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu talked chemical weapons in Syria and missile defense issues and vowed to stay in close touch. The Pentagon even released pictures of the Skype-like chat.

That was long before Russia annexed Crimea, sparking a crisis that has plunged Washington's relationship with Moscow to its lowest point in decades. Today, the relationship that Hagel has begun to forge with his Russian counterpart is one of the few lines of communication that Washington has with Moscow. In the past, these kinds of so-called "mil-to-mil" dialogues have helped the U.S. smooth over tensions, negotiate deals over things like shipping routes through Pakistan, and avert crises in places like the Asia-Pacific. When it comes to Ukraine, however, the conversations have so far failed to alter the tense dynamics between the two countries.

The most recent call between the defense chiefs, on Monday, took several days to schedule, leading to speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin had initially been reluctant to allow it in the first place. And indeed, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it's up to Putin to decide how effective those talks can be.

"Being secretary of defense is a very powerful position, but you can only have influence in cases where the country is willing to listen and willing to bargain with the secretary," he said. "And in this case, I think that will only happen if Putin wants it to happen."

Although media reports indicated that Moscow had suspended high-level discussions with Washington, the White House said the two countries were still in contact. Obama and Putin haven't spoken since April 14, however, which has largely left it to Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry to keep the lines open.

During Hagel's call with Shoygu Monday, their second since the crisis began, Defense Department officials said that Hagel pressed for concrete details about Russia's intentions toward eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops. Shoygu assured Hagel that Russia had no plans to invade, the officials said.

"The call between Minister Shoygu and Hagel was not two people talking past each other," said a senior defense official, who described Monday's 45-minute conversation as civil, candid and forthright, but also "terse at times."

"It was noteworthy that while they did not agree on everything, they did agree to continue talking, and that's not insignificant," the official said.

Last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke for a second time with his counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, to convey his concerns about what Dempsey described as Russia's "aggressive military behavior." That included an incident that occurred with the USS Donald Cook earlier this month in which a Russian fighter jet buzzed the American destroyer in the Black Sea about a dozen times. The two agreed to "keep an open line of communication," according to a later readout of the call. And despite an official suspension of the military relationship with the Russian military, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe, has also been in close touch with his own counterparts there.

The mil-to-mil relationships between the U.S. and countries like Egypt and Pakistan have always been hugely important for top military leaders, and those in uniform have taken great pride in maintaining them even when diplomatic ties were strained or non-existent.

"Relationships between militaries (both uniformed and defense ministers) become even more important when diplomatic, economic, and political relations fray," Jim Stavridis, the retired Navy admiral who last served as supreme allied commander in Europe, wrote in an email. "While they will not always advance the situation, they almost always have the effect of preventing things from getting catastrophically worse."

Generally speaking, the channel allows commanders and military chiefs to prevent a crisis and engage in an "exchange of information" that is typically seen by both sides as separate and apart from the political dialogue between two countries.

Since Hagel arrived at the Pentagon, it has fallen to him to keep the lines of communication open with a number of countries. He has talked to his counterpart in Israel, Moshe Ya'alon, numerous times and aides have said the two have connected on a personal level. But Hagel's attempts to leverage his relationships with countries like Russia have been far less successful.

In the wake of Egypt's coup, for instance, Hagel spoke repeatedly with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the then-head of Egypt's military, and pressed him to adopt a path of moderation toward the Muslim Brotherhood and avoid taking on too much power. At the time, Pentagon officials said that Hagel's phone calls with Sisi were "basically the only viable channel of communication during the crisis." The calls didn't prevent Sisi from banning the Muslim Brotherhood and sentencing hundreds of its members to death after what were effectively show trials. Pentagon officials have maintained that the discussions prevented the relationship between Cairo and Washington from free-fall, but it also deteriorated to the point that the U.S. suspended much of its aid to Egypt. However, last week, the Pentagon announced that it had partially lifted the ban and cleared the way for 10 Apache helicopters to be delivered to Egypt.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, famously maintained a robust dialogue with his functional equivalent, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of the Pakistan Army, talking with him by phone frequently and visiting more than a couple dozen times. Officials said the relationship, which both men cultivated and maintained painstakingly, was crucial during any a number of issues between the two governments, from flaps over CIA drone strikes inside Pakistan to issues pertaining to military shipments from Afghanistan to Pakistani ports. The relationship was also seen as key as to Washington's efforts to persuade Pakistan to be more aggressive against militants in its lawless border regions.

The key, though, is for men like Hagel and Shoygu to build a sustainable, long-term relationship -- not one used only as a matter of convenience or during times of crisis.

"As is often said, you cannot surge trust," Stavridis said. "Three cups of tea is only the beginning."

Olivier Hoslet/AFP

National Security

U.S. Commando Mission in Philippines Getting Overhaul

President Obama's new agreement with the Philippines will give U.S. troops greater access to military bases across the Pacific island nation. But it's not the only major military transition underway there: Just as more conventional U.S. forces are likely to flow through the Philippines, the United States is pulling back on its long-running and secretive special operations mission there, reducing the number of commandos and altering the focus for those who remain.

The mission was launched in January 2002, just months after the 9/11 terror attacks, to help the Philippine military hunt Islamist extremist fighters in the region. Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces and other U.S. commandos zeroed in on southern islands such as Mindanao and Basilan, which are home to the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and were identified as a potential breeding ground for terrorists looking to launch attacks against the United States. There typically were some 600 U.S. commandos on the ground training and advising the Philippine military, but the number has been reduced in the last year to less than 400, and more cuts are expected, a U.S. special operations official told Foreign Policy.

The U.S. forces' primary mission wasn't to fight, but the American commandos have still found themselves in bloody situations on occasion. At least 17 U.S. troops have died there, including 10 in a helicopter crash in 2002, one in a restaurant bombing in 2002, and two in a roadside bombing attack in 2009. More recently, U.S. troops with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command launched an Oct. 18, 2011, rescue mission alongside their Philippine counterparts after Philippine commandos were ambushed during an attempted raid on a village on Basilan. Six Philippine troops were killed and about a dozen were wounded, U.S. military officials said. No U.S. forces were wounded or killed, but some of the Philippine casualties were reportedly beheaded.

The ongoing withdrawal of U.S. commandos is a major move for the Pentagon because the mission in the Philippines is widely viewed as a model for how "foreign internal defense" should work, said Linda Robinson, a special operations analyst with the Rand Corporation that has consulted with the military frequently. Under the concept, the Pentagon sends small amounts of highly trained troops to a foreign country that wants U.S. help and is willing to do the bulk of the fighting itself rather than sending in large numbers of American forces.

"The thing that made the Philippines such a good model was they maintained constant touch with the Philippine government and forces they were training," Robinson said. "They didn't come and go; they had them there consistently."

It's also a bit of a gamble. The Philippine military continues to clash with insurgents groups across the island nation. On Tuesday, for example, local commanders in Zamboanga City said their marine corps forces had captured a fortified Abu Sayyaf camp on Sulu, another island. The assault was launched hours ahead of Obama's arrival in Manila. The extremist group is believed to have numerous captives hidden on Sulu in jungle compounds. The U.S. unit overseeing special operations in the country is known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, and has headquarters on a Camp Navarro, a Philippine base in Zamboanga City, an urban center on Mindanao.

Still, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told Foreign Policy that Philippine security forces have advanced to the point that they don't need as much U.S. assistance as they did a decade ago. Additionally, the government in Manila wants to pivot to build a civilian police force that can maintain security in volatile areas, rather than using the military to hold the line. That will require fewer U.S. special commandos, with many of those remaining focused on training the police force to safeguard the southern islands in the future, the admiral said.

"We're not going to walk away from our support of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but we'd like to broaden it in a way that is consistent with the way forward that the Armed Forces of the Philippines sees it," Locklear told Foreign Policy. "... We don't necessarily need a 600-man train-and-assist mission down there to try to teach them how to do something that they now know how to do."

A U.S. special operations spokesman said the relationship between U.S. commandos and the Philippine military has progressed to the point where they ask for help less frequently, and make specific requests when they do that usually involve crunching surveillance data, using aviation, or launching medical rescue missions. Within the last year, an additional adjustment was made so that advising occurs at the "task force level," meaning the majority of the advising now focuses on tasks carried out by senior officers, like planning and scrutinizing intelligence. It's a sign that commanders believe their rank-and-file troops have picked up the skills U.S. commandos have taught.

The positioning of the special operations forces in the Philippines came in handy last year in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which roared across the island nation on Nov. 8, 2013, with winds of more than 200 mph. U.S. special operations troops were among the first to respond, transporting more than 23,000 pounds of relief supplies and evacuating 201 displaced civilian shortly after the storm. They also conducted dozens of aerial "assessment patrols" using aircraft to gauge the damage on the ground so relief workers would know where to focus their efforts, special operations officials said.

U.S. Navy photo